A city unlike any other in the world, Las Vegas has captured the imaginations of writers across the globe. Writers Imagine Las Vegas: Our City in Fiction, a new exhibit from UNLV University Libraries, highlights the various depictions of the City of Lights in fiction. Drawn from Special Collections, the novels in the exhibit showcase both the extremes and routines of Las Vegas.
Priscilla Finley, humanities librarian in the University Libraries and curator of the exhibit, shares a behind the scenes look at what she learned from this research and why this creative activity is important for getting a better understanding of how Las Vegas is depicted from a cultural standpoint.
What drew you to researching the fictional way Las Vegas is depicted in literary works?
I love reading books set in Las Vegas! You get unexpected takes on familiar places.
Vu Tran’s recent novel Dragonfish got me thinking about this topic. [Tran is a graduate of UNLV’s heralded MFA in Creative Writing program.] His main character is a different kind of guy when revisiting his past in Las Vegas than he is in his “real life” in Oakland. I think some writers are attracted to Las Vegas because it’s kind of an in-between space. Outsiders visit and are dazzled by the machinery of the Strip and feel separated from the ordinary world. But any thoughtful protagonist quickly realizes that there’s clearly more going on than is visible on the surface, and questions are raised about how the city must work. Answering those questions opens up many possible directions for a writer to explore with character development and creative storylines.
In 2008, the University of Nevada Press put out a fantastic anthology called Literary Nevada. Like our state, there’s a lot of ground to cover. The editor included a lot of 19th century essays, cowboy poetry, travel writing, and even stories and myths, but the Las Vegas section drew heavily from memoirs and nonfiction. Since UNLV’s Special Collections makes a point of acquiring novels set in Las Vegas, the exhibits committee and I thought we could highlight some books that are familiar and some that might be more obscure to draw attention to how novelists think about the city.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from curating the exhibit?
The exhibits committee had some great conversations to brainstorm about ways to make connections between photos, documents, and artifacts from Special Collections and the themes explored in the books. Su Kim Chung, Karla Irwin, Kate Lambaria, and Jennifer Church-Duran selected some really evocative photos and artifacts that capture some of the mythology of Las Vegas that the writers tap into - and I was delighted when they unearthed the pair of boxing gloves from Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe in the Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. Collection. It’s in the case about fighters.
What is your favorite part of Writers Imagine Las Vegas?
Of course, my favorite part was spending time exploring fictional landscapes by reading the books. Fortunately, most of the copies you see under glass are on loan from Special Collections, which means there are duplicate copies available for checkout for anyone who is inspired to read them. My favorite light read was Tim Powers’ Last Call, which has some fun supernatural elements.
Why should someone come and check out the exhibit?
Anyone who lives here will be interested to see how the writers reflect on what they like about Las Vegas. Part of the exhibit includes a fantastic panorama photo of the Las Vegas Valley by Aaron Mayes, Special Collections curator for visual material. We pulled out different writers’ descriptions of specific places and mapped them on the image so viewers can also read about their neighborhood and haunts.
How many different works are featured and why?
There are about 75 books, and several of them are short story collections that include some wonderful takes from local and campus writers. We wanted to acknowledge our flourishing contemporary creative writing scene while also drawing from the old pulp novels, genre fiction, and blockbusters that UNLV University Libraries has been preserving in Special Collections.
How did you come up with the different categories for the books?
In one way or another, all the books go below the surface to develop a fictional version of Las Vegas that contributes to the themes the authors are setting up in their works. It was easy to group books together that explored working on the Strip, or experiencing the city as a tourist, or boxing. There are also a number of books featuring hard-boiled detectives who make cynical pronouncements and uncover layers of deception. But the ones we selected move away from the Sam Spade/private-eye template and introduce investigators with an impressive range of ages, backgrounds, motivations, and techniques.
The hardest grouping and the most emotionally gripping one was the books that really delve into growing up and making a life in Las Vegas. There’s a tendency sometimes for writers to use Las Vegas metonymically for different kinds of malaise, whether that’s greed, narcissism, or environmental unsustainability. Some of those works offered pretty strong indictments of the culture at large, and reading fiction where you invest in characters who are vehicles for cultural critique might leave some readers feeling a bit hopeless. But Laura McBride’s We Are Called to Rise stands out for drawing attention to the courage and optimism that keeps people moving forward and finding ways to matter and build community, or rebuild it in the face of catastrophes.
What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibit?
I hope people will be inspired to communicate what they love about Las Vegas, sharing their own observations and experience in order to create their own messages that might help those previously exposed to dismissive stereotypes of “Sin City.” I want people to develop a broader appreciation of our vibrant, diverse, and creative community.